"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 9, 2014

So, What Do You Do?

I knew that French people don’t like to talk about what they do, but I always assumed that this was all pretense.  Of course they wanted to talk about their work and were just doing a little oo-la-la minuet to show off their Gallic diffidence to such mundane pursuits. They work eight hours a day, have invested significantly in their education and training, and have selected a career out of the many available to them, so why not talk about their jobs?

No, I was told by a friend, the French really place more value on the mind than Americans.  They may have to work for a living like everyone else, but their spirit is with Descartes, Hugo, Gide, and Edith Piaf.  Ask them about the Lacan, Derrida, or Sartre and their take on the world, and any Frenchman worth his salt will be voluble if not eloquent.

The French take more pleasure out of life than Americans, she said.  You take coffee breaks while we take our cinq-à-sept, two languorous hours with a paramour in a room overlooking the Seine. You eat at your desks while we enjoy two-hour, three-course meals with wine.  For us work fills in the interstices between episodes of pleasure.  It is necessary but insignificant.

Perhaps, but it depends on who you are talking to. I sat with a worker at a bar in the 15th who had just finished his shift at the tire plant outside of Paris and was on his fourth ballon de rouge was quite happy to talk about his work - métro, boulot, dodo. Up before dawn, long train ride to the suburban Renault factory, seven hours securing door seams, return trip home, service the wife, roll over, and start the long, depressing, endless routine over again.  Mr. Broussard knew little about Louis XIV, deconstructionism, or the Ballets Russes.  His lunch was steam tray steack frites at the factory cafeteria, his cinq-à-sept was two hours spent sprawled out in an overheated car on the commuter train back to Paris, and his cultural refuge was summer vacation on a crowded, rocky beach in Sfax. Monsieur Brossard was happy to talk about his work. He hated it.

On the other hand I had the occasion to spend time with the 15th Duke of _______, a young man who had never worked.  He managed his family’s chateau in Versailles, shot pheasant on his property in the Dordogne, and took care of the accounts at his hotel de ville in Paris.  He had never worked, never aspired to work, never thought of it as ennobling, enriching, or meaningful. His father, the 14th Duke of _______had never been infected by Communism and never looked Eastward for inspiration after the War.  His grandfather, the 13th Duke of ______had read Chekhov and smiled at the great man’s prescience and anticipation of socialism.  How he banged on about the restorative and redemptive power of work!  But how wrong he was.  Idleness is only a sin in the minds of weaker men, he told his grandson.  For the intelligent, patriotic, and loyally French aristocrat, leisure offers time to curate the patrimony of generations, to preserve the cultural traditions handed down since the days of Charlemagne.

Both M. Broussard and the 15th Duke were in their way intellectuals, reflecting as they did on class, privilege, the definition of work, and its very practical nature. Gopal Rani was a rickshaw-wallah in Kolkata. He lived in a culvert with his wife and two children.  He pulled a rickshaw since he was twelve when he took over from his father who died at 36. He never thought for a minute about work – why he worked, the value of work, or anything other than getting through twelve hours of hauling fat babus through the hot, crowded bazaars of the city.  He ate chapattis and old rice for breakfast and dinner, had a gut full of parasites, a chronic eye infection, and open sores.  The only time he did anything but pull his rickshaw was when he watched an old Bollywood rerun starring Raj Kapoor screened on a wall in the railway station by the Municipal Corporation.

Work defined Gopal Rani completely.  His life was marginal, insignificant, and brutal.  Even reflecting on the idle life of the rich was beyond his imagination. Too many generations on the sidewalks and slums of Lucknow had bred imagination out of him. If he aspired to anything it was to the  street boss who smoked bidis and drank Thums Up on the cuts he took from his stable of rickshaw-pullers.

So work is an integral, defining part of one’s life no matter how diffident and dismissive the French may be. Work is enterprise.  It is serfdom, slavery, and indenture.  It is a heralded by political conservatives, was a rallying cry for Free Labor abolitionists in the North.  Union organizers were bloodied and beaten because of their commitment to it.

Work can exist in cyberspace as the product of e-trades and virtual money transfers; it has value as songs, films, or sculpture.  It is codified in national accounts as GDP, stock markets move on news of unemployment or job creation.

Americans are just more honest about work.  They do not intellectualize it like European leftist academics, nor speculate about its value like Chekhov or Hegel.  They simply understand it as defining of character, perspective, and outlook.  What you do is who you are whether in America, France, or India. Why deny it?

Heather Long writing in The Guardian (3.9.14) feels that we take things too far.  We are too quick to judge based on occupation:

In the US, we're obsessed with people's jobs. We want to know all about it. We insist that you tell us what "career tribe" you're in – white collar, blue collar or new high-techy collar. What's your exact title? How do you spend your day? Are you someone speaks the language of law, tech, finance, media, marketing, education, military, government, the arts, etc? Basically, we would like everyone to walk around with their business card attached to their forehead, but since that's a bit over-the-top, we try to glean the same information by asking questions – often lots of them – about your work.

European critics assume that this obsession with work and insistence on categorizing people first as workers is an indication of our crass materialism and cultural immaturity. Americans are a limited people, defined only by money, Hollywood, McDonald’s, and the arrogant use of power.

From our perspective, we are as culturally evolved, intellectual, and creative as any Frenchman – with the exception of course of M. Brossard, his 1324 co-workers at the Goodyear plant outside of Paris, the naturalized Algerians, Malians, and Burkinabe cleaning the streets and picking up the garbage, and the bus drivers, Metro workers, bank tellers, and taximen servicing the Parisian economy.

As Ms. Long suggests, we use work as a template for quick identification.  The words ‘IT, doctor, attorney, military, real estate, banking’ are shortcuts to education, background, breeding, enterprise, class, and intelligence.  Why beat around the bush and see if John Doe can put a few interesting reflections together on Sartre and Existentialism?

Americans don’t put any more emphasis on work than anyone else.  We are simply more honest about it. We know that it is the most distinctive and telling feature of our lives and readily admit it.  We also have as many outside interests as anyone else. The Wall Street investment banker spends his cash on trips to St. Bart’s and Gstaad.  The periodontist goes to Twelfth Night at the Folger. The young Google millionaire decorates his hipster apartment with Jasper Johns.  The most committed liberal community organizer takes weekends in New York to see the new acquisitions at the Met. The American bus driver, garbage collector, Metro driver, hairdresser, or lathe operator watch reality TV, read People Magazine, and get drunk on a six-pack of Bud.

What does distinguish Americans from the French is our seriousness about work.  In an every-man-for-himself economic and social system, it is important to make money.  No one has your back.  More importantly we know how the contribution of hard, enterprising work adds value to products and services.  We are culturally very different from Europeans who live in a welfare society where individual enterprise is undervalued.  Work is necessary, says the State, but we will do all we can to make it more palatable.  We will enable you to work fewer hours, have more time off, and have more generous benefits when you retire young.  Under that philosophical weight, it is not surprising that no one talks about their job.

The best job on either side of the Atlantic is one which combines both intellectual and pursuits with work – having fun at your job; getting paid for personal satisfaction. A good friend of mine always considered himself fortunate to have had a job which took him to the most exotic places in the world, paid him to eat at the best restaurants, to stay in five-star hotels, fly first class, and enjoy all the adventure and beauty that Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe had to offer; and for which he had to do relatively little. “Sort out a few local problems”, he said.  “Nothing more”.  How was he able to arrange such an ideal and cozy arrangement, I asked. “Charm and a silver tongue”, he replied. “The key to any successful enterprise”.  Work depends on how you look at it.

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